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Looking at the Bocas 2014 Longlist: As Flies to Whatless Boys

Looking at the Bocas 2014 Longlist: As Flies to Whatless Boys
 

By Shivanee Ramlochan, 2014 Bocas Lit fest blogger

Published by Akashic Books in 2013.

“All-in-a-sudden a rocket – launched from the ship’s foredeck – shot screaming into the air. Leaving behind its smoky corkscrew trail. Bursting with a loud pap! above the ship. It scattered a hundred bright blue sparks cross the sky, descending through the air in the pattern of an overturned, slowly opening flower. Another rocket followed behind. Exploding in its overturned flower of tiny yellow lights: red, blue, green, yellow. […]

And as the final blue flower dissolved into the sky before us, as it vanished-way, Marguerite and I turned to one another. Gazing into each other’s eyes. Happy as we were exhausted-out.”

Robert Antoni.
Photo accessed on author’s website.

Change, in the irrepressibly exciting notion of a sea voyage to an exotic land, has come to the life of young Willy Tucker and his family. In 1845, they set sail for Trinidad, in the company of one John Adolphus Etzler, a radical-thinking industrialist whose fantastical machines seem poised to reinvent labour entirely. When the Rosalind docks on the congested Trinidadian wharf, however, Willy and all the members of Etzler’s Tropical Emigration Society find that a different, blisteringly humid sort of reality awaits them.

Willy’s loath to be separated from his first true love – the upper-class beauty Marguerite, who has also made the voyage to Trinidad. Dutifully, however, he follows his father, William Senior, and a handful of other intrepid emigrants into the teeming jungle territory of Chaguabarriga – far from Port-Spain’s more hospitable quarters, far from his mother and sisters, far from Marguerite.

Antoni daringly leads his characters through dangerous terrain, with the persistent threat of the Black Vomit (yellow fever) lurking closer with each misstep. At the same time, this historically revisionist adventure is also a tale of true love, of the adversities that young hearts must endure for the sake of safeguarding their nascent passion. Further deepening the machinations of an already elaborate plot, Antoni intersperses comical epistolary exchanges set in the present day, introducing the reader to one sexually audacious director of the Trinidad and Tobago National Archives.

Robert Antoni’s well-curated website presents a glowing cross-section of critical praise for As Flies to Whatless Boys, including my own review of the novel for the Trinidad Guardian’s Sunday Arts Section. Winner of the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, Earl Lovelace (Is Just A Movie), calls the novel’s use of language “virtuosic”, adding that Antoni “delightfully explores the written word in all its forms—as letters, as e-mails, as reportage, as narration, as archives—to tell stories, to paint characters, to demonstrate the range and integrity of English and its dialects, and to edge us closer to ourselves as equally human beings.”

Robert Antoni will be at this year’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest — here’s where you can see him, and engage with his work, at #bocas2014:

Saturday, 26 April: A Fiction Panel on postcolonial reinventions of the historical novel, with David Dabydeen, Bernardine Evaristo and Gerard Besson. (3-4 pm, Old Fire Station)